Spotify Unwrapped: Popular Streaming List Strikes Sour Note

A cell phone showing the logo of Spotify
Spotify Wrapped, a popular feature that calculates users’ most listened to music and podcasts over the last year, is the streaming company's largest marketing event of the year.

Enough about 2022, let’s talk about *you*.

So begins 2022’s Spotify Wrapped, the uber popular, end-of-year streaming review that calculates listeners’ data and reveals the top songs, podcasts, and deep-cut genres its 433 million subscribers played over the past year.

But, the addictive feature isn’t all top hits and audio auras for some. Sandra Graham, a professor and ethnomusicologist at Babson College, said the hotly anticipated list also reveals plenty of societal issues.

“It’s just another example of surveillance culture,” Graham said. “There are all sorts of things that are going on, there’s virtue signaling, there’s competitiveness about who’s cooler. It just adds to the quantification of our lives, which I am so tired of. I’m tired of counting things, everything from the number of steps we take in a day to the number of songs we listened to.”

Spotify rolled out the Wrapped feature in 2015, and listeners and top artists have been clamoring every December since to unwrap their playlists and saturate social media with their information—comparing themselves and their data to friends, family, and complete strangers.

“People like to appear cool. So, if you share it on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, you’re doing it because it’s eliciting feedback from people that’s meant to confirm something good about you,” Graham said. “Whether it’s your eclectic music tastes or your cool factor or whatever. I think that’s why people who do embrace it like it.”

Up for the Downvote

Indeed, public interest in the feature shows no signs of slowing down. The annual rollout continues to be the biggest marketing event of the year for Spotify as celebrities, influencers, and others share their lists. Spotify reported 120 million users engaged with Wrapped in 2021, an increase from the 90 million user engagements in 2020.

Babson Professor Sandra Graham
Sandra Graham, a Babson professor and enthnomusicologist, says Spotify Wrapped highlights some troubling societal trends.

Spotify Wrapped faced some hiccups this year, however. Some longtime users bristled when they found out the list doesn’t include listening information after Oct. 31, meaning the end-of-year wrap-up is missing one quarter of the year. Graham points out that her Wrapped is basically meaningless because she listens to many songs for her classes.

“There are all these ways in which I don’t think Spotify Wrapped truly captures the listening personality of the user,” Graham said.

An even darker issue emerged when Korean pop artist Lisa of BLACKPINK faced a barrage of social media vitriol after Spotify promoted her to the most Streamed K-Pop Soloist of 2022. Spotify corrected the error within days, putting BTS’s Jungkook in the top spot, but the vicious and misogynistic comments continued, prompting some Lisa fans to demand Spotify apologize to her.

“It was awful. There were these bullying, violent comments against her about something that wasn’t even her fault,” Graham said.

To further entice listeners, this year’s Wrapped includes a look at subscribers’ “listening personality,” using a model based loosely on the popular Myers-Briggs personality types. Last year, Wrapped revealed listeners’ “Audio Aura.”

Ultimately, Graham believes the troubling issues behind the feature outweigh the fleeting fun Wrapped provides.

“Spotify acts like they’re doing you a favor, but all they’re doing is using it as another mode of free advertising. And, users are doing it for them,” Graham said. “If you really know who you are, and you’re secure in it, you don’t need some outside company who’s making money off you to tell you these things.”

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